Leading Change – Ironies of Change (Week 9)

Change is a serious business or is it?

This week teaches us that we need to maintain an ironic sensibility to be an effective change leader. The concept is that we all experience irony in how organisations tackle change. The image that all directed change is for the better and will add value to our lives, is conducted by rational, inclusive leaders in a rational inclusive way is set against what we all know to be true that change projects can and often do go off the rails, are not always for the better and change leaders can be irrational and selective in a curious juxtaposition of fantasy and reality. This folks, is irony.

So how can irony help? Well, it always pays to have a sense of humour in embarking on any change initiative. But beyond that is this notion of being enthusiastic whilst maintaining a healthy distance and not being too caught up in the imperfect outcomes of the change process or a step in it, and being able to accept and communicate the ironies of change to the  right audience at the right time to the right level. In other words, as David Forster Wallace points out it is the ability to see and use the flaws, the hypocrisies and duplicates and not rally against them. This is part of the Ironic Performance.

Irony as the Snorkel of Sanity – the Ironic Perspective

We were introduced to irony being seen as a snorkel of sanity as a way of keeping and understanding the ironic perspective. Way back in week 1 and 2 we talked about the organizational iceberg. It looks like this (borrowed, with thanks Torben Rick – www.Torbenrick.eu):


Above the water is the visible culture of the organisation driven by the instruments of rationality – strategy, vision, goals, polices and procedures. Below the water line is the way things are really done in the organisation through the irrational drivers of perceptions, traditions, cultural norms and storytelling.

What irony lets us do is swim along the top of the water with our head down to the below the surface whilst providing a funnel through which we can breathe.  It allows for fluidity to navigate both above the line and below the line and allows for a seriously playful view of the organisation, change process and how we act in it.

I really love this image of the snorkel and it really resonated with me. I have always tried to use humour in my work. It is wonderful way of sharing what could be controversial thoughts in a non-confronting way. Done in the right way and in the right time it can act as a bonding agent and can diffuse tension and stress. I am also a big fan of sarcasm and irony; I love the cleverness of it and banter makes the work go round. How wonderful to realise that irony can be a constructive tool and outlook in the world of work, rather than a destructive one. I have practiced it subtly my whole career. Often, the deadlines I am running to are tight with resources thin on the ground.

Instead of complaining about it which will get me nowhere I have put up this sign behind my desk as a way of saying worried, not worried about the work load. It’s a wonderful saying from Alice in Wonderland and to me embodies this ironic perspective. It far better than lashing out at the next person who adds to my work pile and an acknowledgement that its OK if I never get to the end. As I learned this week, this ironic perspective helps plug the gap between what I do accomplish and what I set out to accomplish and helps me deal with the notion of how little I can actually control. I will be using this tool a lot more in the future now that I understand it has a rightful place in the world of work.

Ironic Performance – masks and the art of the cosmopolitan performance

Earlier in the course we learned about the need for performance and the use of masks to aid that performance in leading change. We have to know when to perform on the front stage and when on the back and which mask to wear, if any at all, at any one time. The ironic mask is one of the and helps to alleviate the tension of change and allows solutions to be formed for problems that arise. We need to be able to admit that the change process is imperfect to be able to bring people along for the ride.

We learned that it takes a cosmopolitan performance that communicates the tension of unrealistic expectations of change and the ability of working though the tension in collaboration with others who may have diverse viewpoints. Such a performance requires five viewpoints:

  • Diversity – the need to find common ground in recognising difference
  • Toggling – standing inside and outside your view of change, both acting in change and looking at the performance from the audience
  • Duality – double part- being able to laugh at ourselves and others, double plots – recognising the multi-layered aspects of performance
  • Humour – ability to use wit and parody to bring about desired outcomes
  • Humility – create identification with others whilst acknowledging your own limited perspective

We viewed ironic performance through the actions of Mahtma Gandhi who lead India to independence from British rule. He used compassion, non-violent resistance and civil disobedience to avoid armed struggle, largely through symbolism, humility and verbal irony. Ghandi played the long game, reflecting and adjusting his performance along the way.

He understood and used the duality, such as in verbal irony:

British: “Do you expect the British to just walk out?”

 Ghandi: “Yes, that’s exactly what the British will do”

He also understood the art of what I call screaming subtlety, a subtlety that was non aggressive but pointed in its message. An example of this is how Ghandi dressed in a knee-length toga whilst visiting Britain on a cold, rainy day. He displayed all of the five traits listed above and was ultimately effective in bringing about monumental change.

Ironic Temperament – a discipline one can master

We learned that maintaining an ironic performance and perspective requires an ironic temperament of poise and balance. This is a discipline we can leant qualities of an ironic temperament include:

  • Tolerance
  • Humility
  • Liberal
  • Reflective.

Prior organisational studies have labelled those with ironic temperament in various ways. We looked at the following three:

  1. Tempered radical – trying to bring about change but working within the system
  2. Principled infidel – crafting out ways to maintain autonomy whilst being seen to follow the rules to achieve for the client
  3. Insider/outsider – as an insider they work the culture and system to mobilise and build credibility whilst at the same time they can see where these get in the way of performance and use ideas and connections from outside to question assumptions and change frames and perceptions. Blended distance and commitment.

We also learned that it pays to have a playful outlook and to not hesitate to engage in playfulness even in an organisational setting when the need arises. This, I can understand as it has saved me many times from various work situations. However, it generally is a backstage tool I use and given it’s a discipline that should be built, I feel there is now room for it in frontstage performance as well. The trick is to use that snorkel of sanity to know when it is useful.

Looking at the above list of labels, I think I have been all of these at one time or another in my career, but in response to a situation. I think right now, I’m more principled infidel than the other two. That said, I need to be much more focussed on what’s happening emotionally than I have in the past to become more effective. One of the metaphors we learned that I think is really helpful here is that of the movie.

Each of us have an inbuilt editor’s suite – a disciplined reflection mechanism – where we stand outside of ourselves and replay the video of our action and critically analyse.  The more we do this, the better ability we have to actually see the movie as it is being played out in the moment and correct.

Reflecting on my journey this year, I have become better at entering the editor’s suite and reflecting on my performance. I find myself on occasion switching gears whilst in the interaction as a result of looking down at my actions. It’s the knack of being aware of what I am saying, how I am sounding and recognising the need to pivot if I have to. Understanding that I am the producer of this movie, at least as to how I say my lines and turn up and being able to improvise will help me increase my proficiency in this.

The Bottom Line

I love that irony has a legitimate part to play in leading change and that it can be seen as a snorkel of sanity. This is a really useful metaphor not least because having a snorkel can be a life saver! I think the analogy of the movie is also helpful in understanding you need to be actor and audience all at the same time and that trips to the editing suit should be frequent. To me this week can be summed up by caring, not caring – being committed, but not a zealot whilst holding some nonchalance at the outcome. As Frederick Douglas said: “At a time like this, scorching irony not convincing argument is needed.” Sounds like sound advice to me.

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